Mu Dan’s Poetry as a History of Modern China
Summary and Keywords
An expeditionary force soldier. A jungle war survivor. A patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for a tedious journey home to the newly founded People’s Republic of China. A “counterrevolutionary.” A forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.—A poet. Careful study of Mu Dan’s (1918–1977) poetry enables us to explore a string of moments in modern China’s transformation.
Twenty-two poems by Mu Dan have been selected as a history of China from the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). Fusing linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision, they weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. Further, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals.
To reveal the turning points in modern China’s history, the twenty-two poems have been contextualized along two axes. A vertical axis, the thread of themes, consists of eleven motifs developed and revisited by Mu Dan from 1940 through 1976; they are: Youth, War, Disillusion, Maturity, Sacrifice, Exposure, Enlightenment, Conversion, Awakening, Anguish, and Reflection. A horizontal axis, the spectrum of sentiments, exhibits Mu Dan’s contradictory attitudes toward modern China’s transformation by identifying him with his countrymen or distancing him from them as a free spirit and cultural critic.
This conceptual framework assists in examining the interaction between history and literature. It demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. This reading allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.
China in 1942 was anything but “spring-like.” The country was consumed by five years of war with Japan and fifteen years of civil war between Nationalists and Communists. Against this background of chaos and tumult, the sentiments voiced in Mu Dan’s “Spring” are audaciously youthful.
Despite a tender, intimate tone, “Spring” captures a generation’s zealous spirit. In Stanza 1, the combination of “struggle out” and “whether . . . or” articulates the no-matter-what attitude characteristic of youth. In Stanza 2, the sequence from “tree” to “bird” to “flame,” along with the sequence from “puzzled” to “burning” to “curling and writhing” to “waiting,” convey every twenty-year-old’s craving for adventure and anguish of anticipation. While “green” and “blue,” the colors that open Stanzas 1 and 2, allude to the Chinese word for “youth,” literally “green-blue spring,” the third color that glares in the middle, “scarlet,” prefaces the final line, “to spring forth into a new palette.” Published in Poems for The Revolutionary Army (Guizhou, 1942.5.26), “Spring” not only speaks of the Chinese youth’s discontent with the present that it perceives as a prison, but also its overconfidence in its power and potential as well as its idealistic vision of the future.
Also dedicated to youth, Mu Dan’s “May” captures the revolutionary fervor from a different angle. The title alludes to the May Fourth Movement, the climax of China’s New Culture Movement initiated by the magazine New Youth. The stark juxtaposition of classical (square) and modern (free) forms illustrates a critical moment when China was caught between the old and new.
The clash between tradition and modernity is manifest in the fierce tension between form and content throughout “May.” In the poem’s original form, each classical style stanza consists of four seven-character lines that build a compact square. These stanzas utilize a variety of classical sources, ranging from ancient Chinese folk songs and ballads through Li Yu’s and Su Shi’s canonical poems to the Ming-dynasty fantasy novel Journey to the East. Prodigal sons, betrayed lasses, and wanderers led by a Daoist immortal—all blend into a chaotic crowd; yet this chaos is concealed within stanzas adherent to rigid structure. At the same time, the stanzas in free verse draw a zigzag pattern and utilize a conventionally non-poetic, harsh-sounding vocabulary infused with modern military, technical, and political terminologies. Thematically however, they tell a coherent tale: reborn in pain through “History’s spiral groove,” an individualistic “I” acquires the mind of Lu Xun, a leader of the New Culture Movement, and exposes a plural “you,” the self-proclaimed defenders of “May’s freedom,” to be its oppressors. With a penetrating eye and a black heart, the radical “I” teases and tries the hypocritical democracy advocates, convicts them of modern slavery, exchanges them for those formerly detained in their “ancient prison,” and leads the newly freed rebels into dissention and anarchy. Thus, the violent oscillation between classical and modern stanzas of “May” depicts, on the one hand, the tortured path of China’s transformation as articulated in Stanza 6, “a feudal society run aground in the history of capitalism,” and, on the other hand, the anguished growth of China’s revolutionary youth as signaled in Stanza 2, “Browning, Mauser, Model 3, / or the revolver that fires shrapnel into human flesh, / all give me elation post despair.” The youthfulness of “May,” therefore, lies not in springish innocence, aspiration, or anticipation, but rather in iconoclasm, celebration of violence, and an egoistic attitude toward the civil war and the war between tradition and modernity.
For patriotic intellectuals who assumed the role of cultural critics in 1940s China, “war” had to be waged on two fronts—against military invaders from without and militant ideologies from within. The latter is manifest in “Harming,” where the confrontation between the singular “I” and the plural “you” in “May” has evolved into a dissident’s war against intellectual conformity.
Unlike the now playful, now pugnacious tone of “May” and its occasional fantasy-parody rhetoric, “Harming” develops a solemn, reflective tone and underlines the sensitivity and vulnerability of the dissident “I” right at the beginning. Stanza after stanza, “indifferent weapons” are revealed: ideological propaganda, brutal crackdowns, post-facto justifications, delusional rationalizations, and devilish mercy. The identity of the plural “you” is thus unveiled: the almsgiver-bandits who stand for “the ground” and profit from “paralyzed truth,” that is, the 1940s partisans who sought and used all means to force conformity upon Chinese citizens. The nonconformist “I” however, identifies himself as “the sea,” using his pride and prejudice, solitude and remembrance to fight equalization and collective oblivion. In this respect, the assertion in “May,” “you have taught me Lu Xun’s mind,” finds potent echoes in “Harming.” The double “unwilling” in Stanza 3 reinforces Lu Xun’s 1924 manifesto “The Shadow’s Farewell”: “If there is that which I do not want in Heaven, I am unwilling to go; if there is that which I do not want in Hell, I am unwilling to go; if there is that which I do not want in what you all call the coming Golden World, I am unwilling to go.” Two decades later, Mu Dan’s furtherance of Lu Xun’s mind brings to light the affinity between two of modern China’s distinctive poets. More importantly, it exposes the “Harming” of indoctrination and uniformity—a recurrence that haunts modern China’s history, in war and peace—as well as a skeptical attitude demanded of every intellectual willing to wrestle it.
As the increasingly devastating war with Japan required the unconditional allegiance of the Chinese people, Mu Dan the poet had to compromise with his new role as Mu Dan the soldier. Following an agreement between Britain and China regarding the mutual defense of the Burma Road, the Republic of China created in December 1941 the Chinese Expeditionary Force (CEF), for which Mu Dan volunteered. Upon the CEF’s first expedition into the Burmese frontier in February 1942, Mu Dan composed a poem and published it in Ta Kung Pao: Battle Line (Chongqing, 1942.5.4) under “Poetry,” only to retitle it “Departure” when publishing it anew in 1947.
At first glance, “Departure” is opposed to “Harming”: the bond between a unified “we” and a singular “You” replaces the duel between the dissident “I” and the plural “you.” But a close examination reveals that the bond is no less chilling and violent than the duel. Stanzas 1–3 present the teachings of an absent yet omnipresent subject, “You.” While the recurring “yet” signals the contradictory nature of “Your” doctrine, the double “for” signals “Your” suspicious logic: that the loss of individualism in war requires appreciation of the “mechanical phalanx” and that the destruction of the “manufacture of death” requires slaughter and torture. Juxtaposed with “Harming,” the line bridging Stanzas 3 and 4 in “Departure” identifies indoctrination as the poisoning of a nation and shifts “the present” from “my resistance” of “your kindness” to “our” captivity “in Your plan.” Consequently, the next line exposes the illusion of “our” progress and the delusion of “Your” creed. Had “Departure” ended here, it would have been a dissident’s song camouflaged in the CEF’s uniform. But the actual ending suppresses the instinct to revolt against conformity and reveals the soul of a patriot, “Yet we are devout.” The tone-reversing “Yet” accepts all the “yets” in “Your twisted lines.” The devout worship “You,” the Lord of War, and submit to the wartime demand for a collective mind. The final line, “You give us fulfilment—and fulfilling anguish,” rationalizes the Chinese people’s decision to conform. More poignantly, it elucidates the “Departure” of Mu Dan and like-minded Chinese intellectuals from their original position against conformity. The peculiar pause, here rendered as an em dash, followed by a conjunction betrays the internal conflicts of these patriotic critics: resolute in fulfilling their duty to their fatherland—and anguished by the sacrifice of their individuality.
Mu Dan served in the Fifth Corps of the CEF, under the command of Du Yuming, who created the first mechanized division in the National Revolutionary Army and integrated it into the Fifth Corps. During the war with Japan, the Corps distinguished itself in several decisive battles, including the Battle of Kunlun Pass and the Battle of Toungoo. However, the Corps’s retreat back into China through the Burmese jungle (May–September 1942) resulted in its nearly complete annihilation. Mu Dan fought in the rearguard during this retreat. He survived the deadly jungle, while more than 50,000 other Chinese soldiers did not. “Nature’s Dream” is the first poem that Mu Dan composed after this epic disaster.
A retrospective view sets “Nature’s Dream” apart. The phrase that begins the first and last stanzas, “I once was,” frames the poem as a first-person narrator’s layered flashback. Stanzas 1–3 build the first layer. In a montage sequence, they display in visceral imagery “my” intimate bond with Nature and the emptiness felt after persuading “myself” to “awaken” into the reality of “the impenetrable throng.” This awakening, in the light of the poem’s opening, “I once was lost,” is a disillusionment in “my” then perception; however, a twisting “yet” (line 10) emphasizes shock and bitterness, rather than clarity or joy. The second layer consists of Stanza 4 alone. It starts with an alternative rationale of “my” first awakening, shifting the cause from self-persuasion to indoctrination by the “almsgivers.” Stanza 4 then recounts “my” conversion to “the wisdom of the human world;” “yet” (line 15), however, accentuates “my” ultimate disillusion with it. This disillusionment, provoked not by self-persuasion or indoctrination, but by “anguish’s excessive carving,” proves to be the second and final awakening. It reverses “my” conversion, turns “me” back to where “I” belongs, and reveals the freedom of the sea and a cosmic vision that are irrevocably “mine.”
As Mu Dan’s first poem after the jungle war, “Nature’s Dream” employs a veteran’s perspective and re-evaluates from a distance many sentiments in his previous poems, particularly those that speak for the young generation in China. While the sentiments voiced in “Spring”—earthy innocence, youthful passion, and a nakedness vulnerable to conformity—are re-acknowledged, the fundamental attitude uttered in “Departure” is questioned. Most sharply, “my” exposure “within the impenetrable throng” questions the collective mind of “a mechanical phalanx;” the eventual revelation of the “world where I grew devout” as an illusory home questions the collective decision to conform. Thus, “Nature’s Dream” marks Mu Dan’s return to his original position against conformity and prefaces “Fantasy’s Passenger,” his second post-jungle poem, with which he resumes the role of a fierce cultural critic.
In contrast to the introspective first-person narrator of “Nature’s Dream,” whose recollection details the stages of a generation’s disillusion, the omniscient third-person narrator of “Fantasy’s Passenger” attends to a disillusioned individual and his struggle in the present. Stanza 1 tells the title figure’s personal history as an integral part of China’s history: victimized by wartime indoctrination and war violence, a “fantasy’s passenger” survives the fatal “mistake” that costs the lives of all his comrades. Stanzas 2–3 shift the focus from the past to the present: a society whose banality, treachery, and stagnation make a mockery of the veteran’s martyrdom, fidelity, and outlook. Disillusioned with “his glorious concept,” he finds himself “ground into a slavery with an ornamental ideal” and seeks shelter in spiritual “self-exile.” Up to now, many critiques uttered in Mu Dan’s pre-jungle egoistic poems are reinforced—from the apocalyptic imagery of “a feudal society run aground in the history of capitalism” to the radical solution of sculpting a covert, personal “god who shines, reigns, avenges.” Yet “Fantasy’s Passenger” surpasses “May” and “Harming” in ambiguity. In Stanza 4, Mu Dan simultaneously projects himself onto and distances himself from the title figure. While “turning infinite malice into one’s own nourishment” recalls the vindictive spirit of “Harming” and learning “the grandeur of playing the master” echoes the sarcasm of “May,” the connotation of “crawling” casts a dubious light upon the scenario. “Crawling” brings to mind not only the writhing “beasts” in military circles as in “Departure,” but also the parasitic and boot-licking people in routine life in Mu Dan’s other 1940s poems. Now, the narrator employs a rhetorical wink befitting a showman, “Dear reader,” and promises a spectacle that makes one “admire and sigh.” But the audience is left wondering if the “enduring smile”—the rebel’s heart—perseveres, or if it will ultimately be consumed by “the grandeur of playing the master.”
The ambiguous finale of “Fantasy’s Passenger” is both timely and untimely, for it adopts the then prevalent master/slave dichotomy yet challenges its mainstream usage: Two anthems, March of the Volunteers (“Arise! You who are unwilling to be slaves!”) and L’Internationale (“Arise! Slaves afflicted by hunger and cold! . . . We shall be the masters of the world! This is the last battle. Let’s unite for the sake of tomorrow.”), played pivotal roles in 1920s through 1940s China for Communists as well as Nationalists. Both anthems use the dichotomy to advocate liberation and promise progress. Mu Dan, however, scrutinizes the historical and contemporary conceptions of “slave” and “master” and questions the idealistic-progressive view of “tomorrow.”
An intermittent journalist between 1943 and 1947, Mu Dan was able to travel through a country of profound military, political, and intellectual rifts. Besides consolidating his observations in essays published in Independence Weekly (Kunming, 1945.12–1946.1) and The New Daily (Shenyang, 1946.4–1947.8), Mu Dan voiced his sentiments in poems that demonstrate his maturity as an individual and cultural critic.
This poem’s shifting titles—“Maturity” (1944 draft), “Maturity: A Duo” (1947 revision), and “Rift” (1948 final version)—indicate Mu Dan’s shifting perspective from an individual’s self-analysis to a cultural critic’s assessment of his time. Chapter 1 mimics a documentary camera that captures and magnifies the socio-economic rifts characteristic of the urban life in 1940s China while exposing the observer behind the camera by foretelling the rifts as “anguish” (line 2) and recognizing them as “a conspiracy” (line 11). Despite his penetrating vision and denunciatory tone reminiscent of the “I” in “May” and “Harming,” the first-person narrator of Chapter 1 refrains from promoting egoistic radicalism and advocates a collective alertness by pinpointing the “conspiracy” as that which “matures us.”
Chapter 2 employs a third-person narrator who, as in “Fantasy’s Passenger,” empathizes with and separates himself from the protagonist. The graphic opening simultaneously echoes “my” rebirth “through History’s spiral groove” (“May”), “our” writhing “in crooked dogtooth tunnels” (“Departure”), “anguish’s excessive carving” on “my body” (“Nature’s Dream”), and being “ground into a slavery” like “a cog in the giant wheel” (“Fantasy’s Passenger”). Reading poetry as history, the “bullet” alludes to a string of moments in modern China’s history: betrayal of the May Fourth legacy (“May”), sacrifice of the Expeditionary Force (“Departure”), dehumanizing indoctrination in war and peace (“Nature’s Dream”), and disillusionment with “an ornamental ideal” (“Fantasy’s Passenger”). The “brands throughout” are the rifts that distinguish the protagonist from “the winged” and “the sunlit.” While the latter triumph in “tradition,” he who pursues “the new-born hope” is wounded and awaits his final crushing. The descriptions of “the young” and “the old” then bring to mind a variety of co-conspirators: the young converts of the deceitful “wisdom” (“Nature’s Dream”), the veterans who learn to play the slaves turned masters (“Fantasy’s Passenger”), and the “blind people” who “plunge into the swamp” (“May”). Together, they build a community that is too naïve, cowardly, or apathetic to face pressing issues. They are part of “the unbreakable white day” that renders a progressive conception of history groundless.
The conclusion of this chapter, however, had to be revised, as Mu Dan came to a more terrifying realization. In the initial version, the last two lines read: “Futurity in hostile stares. Anguish—for / those who reform Tomorrow, Today already reforms.” There, Mu Dan identified the wounded protagonist as one of the few who attempt to “reform Tomorrow,” uttered an alert critic’s anguish, and articulated a dark, non-mainstream view of futurity. In the final version, the last two lines are revamped: “Who looks after futurity? No heart is in anguish: / those who reform Tomorrow, Today already reforms.” Here, Mu Dan uses a colon to identify ordinary people as those who are expected to “reform Tomorrow,” illustrating how a contagious indifference has undercut this expectation. Like melodic counterpoints, the collective vigilance championed in Chapter 1 and the collective indolence condemned in Chapter 2 complement one another. They manifest the necessity and urgency for Chinese people to “mature” as individuals, that is, to acknowledge the socio-economic as well as ideological rifts, take responsibility for them, and move toward bettering China’s condition, even though—or precisely because—this seems impossible.
Originally composed in 1944, “Rift” underwent an evolution and first appeared in Ta Kung Pao: Literature and Art (Tianjin) on March 16, 1947. On this day, Mu Dan, who chose to follow the lunar calendar and the traditional or “virtual-age” reckoning system, turned thirty. He saw this birthday as the threshold of maturity in accordance with a phrase from the Analects of Confucius, “At thirty, I took my stand.” March 1947 also coincided with a crucial turn of events in China. In this month, the tenuous alliance between Nationalists and Communists to resist Japanese invasion was dissolved with finality. Chu Anping, one of the most prominent liberals, published “The Political Landscape in China” in The Observer (Shanghai, 1947.3.8), an influential magazine that he founded to promote independence and non-partisanship. Observing the plague of civil war, Chu called the Nationalist and Communist parties the two extremes that roused a pervasive discontent and proposed a third way—leadership by liberal intellectuals—in hopes of stabilizing the country. As the chief editor of The New Daily himself, Mu Dan approached in March the first anniversary of his newspaper and contemplated its founding principles, “conscience, vision, and courage.” Against this personal and national background, Mu Dan composed “Upon Turning Thirty” and published it in Ta Kung Pao: Literature and Art (Tianjin, 1947.6.29) as a response to the call of “Rift” for moral and intellectual maturity.
At the first reading, both chapters illuminate the moment of “turning thirty” and reaching maturity in complementary realms: socio-political and philosophical. Chapter 1 uses military terminology in the opening scene that alludes to the wartime socio-political sphere and prompts the reader to ponder an individual’s fate in China’s history. The string of commas in Stanzas 1 through 3 creates a chain of action and reaction that reflects the overpowering and confusing effect of the “orders from the void on high.” They heap up “incessant harm” and cause a loss of innocence while “fermenting the final betrayal.” The insignificance of “a fledgling scout” and the impotence of the attacks in which he participates are accentuated by the recurring “merely.” All this leads to a psychological conflict, “a willingness that is unwilling, a certainty that is uncertain.” Stanza 3 then ends with a disheartening assertion that echoes Mu Dan’s earlier exposure of the militants and partisans, “triumph and glory forever belong to the invisible master.” “Yet” in Stanza 4 breaks the chain. Now referring to the fledgling scout as “an unaged man,” Chapter 1 declares the flip side of fading youth—to rediscover oneself “amidst destruction’s flames”—and thus turns the curse of futility into the promise of maturity.
By contrast, Chapter 2 takes a philosophical approach to the opening scene and prompts the reader to ponder an individual’s path through the history of the universe. Despite originating from “atomic dust” and having nothing but “the incessantly extinguished present” to resort to, the self-observer proclaims to the world that he raises what symbolizes eternity. “Yet” in Stanza 3 undermines his certainty. The creation and destruction of past selves subverts his existence and foreshadows his fate of being ground into grit. Now conscious of the vanity of his ambition and endeavor, the self-observer proves his maturity by accepting “Time,” who disproves him moment by moment, as a companion.
A second reading of the poem reveals another layer of its contrapuntal texture: the dialogue between socio-political and philosophical approaches to maturity is not only carried on between both chapters, but also within each chapter. “The void” in the first line of Chapter 1 and “from non-being to being” in its closure frame a Daoist-existentialist perspective that invites a philosophical interpretation of the military-infused sequence. The opening scene can thus be read as an individual’s birth, his plunge into “the vast enemy,” life. The chapter then describes the path of maturity through a life where meaning is hazily if at all grasped, starting from an optimistic embrace of life’s hardships through the disheartening recognition of death as simply “the final betrayal” and the eternal victory of “the invisible master” as the manifestation of man’s ultimate limitation. Finally, the “fledgling scout” of life crosses the threshold of maturity, recognizing himself, “an unaged man” reborn “within destruction’s flames.” So this chapter applies not only to the wartime sphere of 1940s China, but also to a universal context.
In parallel with the polyphony of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 employs dual allusions to integrate a socio-political dimension into the philosophical-cosmological realm. The act of raising in Stanza 2 goes beyond earth, thought, and glory to “you and me, and the dike that holds back all that is detestable,” which can allude to the banners and flags of the self-observer’s revolt against China’s factious present. Furthermore, his “incessantly extinguished present” recalls “the present” of a resisting dissident (“Harming”) and of an imprisoned generation (“Departure”), while his incessant conversion recalls being exiled to “the human world” (“Nature’s Dream”), “ground into a slavery with an ornamental ideal” (“Fantasy’s Passenger”), and crushed by “tradition, the unbreakable white day” (“Rift”). Thus, Time turns out to be History, or more precisely modern China’s history, which “now creates, now destroys.” The stand that a mature man takes—to accept an omnipotent and capricious companion who continuously reshapes him like atomic dust—models not only the true path of an individual through the universal history, but also through the particular history of modern China. As a whole, “Upon Turning Thirty” distinguishes itself by fusing disparate philosophical traditions and political critiques. Upon reaching this milestone, Mu Dan the soldier, Mu Dan the journalist, and Mu Dan the poet become one.
By the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in September 1945, total Chinese military and civilian casualties exceeded 35 million. “Sacrifice” had become a paradox: a glorious concept for war propaganda and at the same time a daily occurrence that had lost its shock value. As a traumatized CEF veteran, Mu Dan, like few others, was in a position to scrutinize “sacrifice” as a complex phenomenon. He needed three years for the 1942 jungle war ordeal to ferment into a poem that commemorates the sacrifice of his 50,000 comrades. Composed right after Japan’s surrender, on the verge of an all-out civil war, the poem was first published in Renaissance magazine (Shanghai, 1946.7.1) under “The Jungle’s Song—Elegy on the Soldiers in the Kachin Mountains.” The final version, retitled “The Jungle’s Allure—Elegy on the Sacred Bones of the Hukawng Valley,” appeared as the last poem in Mu Dan’s 1948 anthology, Flag.
Among the 166 poems of Mu Dan’s oeuvre, “The Jungle’s Allure” is one of only three poetic dramas. Its two-part title suggests a two-part architecture: a duel between “Jungle” and “Man” followed by an “Elegy” lamenting the defeated. This peculiar structure reveals a thematic evolution. Compared to “Nature’s Dream” written soon after the Fifth Corps’s calamitous retreat through the jungle, this long-fermented drama no longer lingers within the warm bond of Man with Nature—a nature embodied in “a lass’ passion,” but rather highlights the chilling exposure of Man to Nature—a nature embodied in “The Jungle’s Allure.” The former articulates the intimacy of the bond through a first-person narrator’s reminiscence that blends human speech with “Nature’s moonlit chatter.” The latter accentuates the fatality of the exposure through a lopsided duel between two strangers: one “unmovable” and sprung “from the primeval,” the other “awe”-struck and awakening “in an incomprehensible dream.” The pair is introduced through parallel monologues: the jungle speaks the language of omnipotence and secrecy; the man’s language, that of vulnerability and confusion. Then, the jungle’s greeting to the man, “Welcome you. You are welcome to relinquish your flesh,” initiates a one-round dialogue, which, from alternate perspectives, details the man’s submission to the jungle that obliterates their dissonance by turning the man into its possession.
After the pair vanishes behind “darkness’ threshold,” a chorus-like voice chants the “Elegy on the Sacred Bones of the Hukawng Valley,” identifying the defeated man as one of the 50,000 soldiers who fought and died in the Kachin Mountains. Against the forgetfulness of the jungle (line 8) as well as mankind (line 13), the elegy inscribes into the rolls of history the CEF martyrs of the Burma Campaign as immortal “spirits of heroes.” This dramatic compound of a Jungle/Man duel and a separate elegy enables Mu Dan to portray “sacrifice” with authenticity and dignity. While the duel manifests a naked reality that subverts the trend to romanticize war for political-ideological promotion, the elegy manifests a compassionate eye that confronts those who evade war-inflicted sufferings and fall into moral nihilism. Through this poem, Mu Dan the fighter projects himself onto the man in the duel, Mu Dan the survivor projects himself onto the chanter of the elegy, and Mu Dan the critic projects himself onto the echoing viewpoints both within the poem and in the larger context of his corpus.
Within the poem, the “chaos” in the jungle’s last speech and in the elegy suggests an alternative jungle—the dark side of humanity—in which all the clamoring chaos is “empty and illusory.” Placing “The Jungle’s Allure” in juxtaposition with Mu Dan’s other poems brings forth more textual evidence of the human jungle in modern China. The “being, obscure and unmovable” echoes the covert gaze and “paralyzed truth” in “Harming.” The phrase, “it spins a web, suppressing my breath,” resonates with the imagery of the “delicate web, luring, dissolving, and seizing long-time memories” in “May.” The “soul filled with wisdom” recalls the almsgivers who “led me to the wisdom of the human world” in “Nature’s Dream.” The jungle’s “deep-green poison” and its demand for “my submission” evoke the omnipotent “You” and the “poisonous link in Your plan” in “Departure.” Thus, “The Jungle’s Allure” documents not only a singular forgotten disaster during WWII, but also the incessant disasters of modern China.
“Martyrdom,” Mu Dan’s second poem that grapples with the phenomenon of sacrifice, focuses on the human jungle in post-WWII China. On July 11, 1946, ten days after the first publication of “The Jungle’s Allure,” Li Gongpu, a prominent educator and a leader of the China Democratic League, was assassinated. On July 15, Wen Yiduo, a pioneer poet-scholar, an influential member of the League, and Mu Dan’s mentor, was assassinated immediately after eulogizing Li. One year later, On Chinese Literary Revolution by Qu Qiubai was published, returning to the public consciousness Qu’s anguished path from a poet to a Communist leader, which ended in his murder by the Nationalists in 1935. In August 1947, Mu Dan’s Shenyang-based newspaper, The New Daily, was outlawed by the Republic of China; “Martyrdom” was composed upon his return to Beijing in October.
Darker, icier, and bleaker than “The Jungle’s Allure,” “Martyrdom” unveils a human jungle conspicuous for its sufferers’ dispiriting weariness. A “collective pale” smothers the primeval green; a “voiceless famine” smothers the Jungle/Man dialogue; an irreversible “paralysis” smothers the struggles for the journey home. The absence of purpose replaces the acknowledged motive, “you died for others to live on;” the absence of honor and prospect replaces the forward-looking affirmation that the spirits of heroes will “become one with the trees and thrive.”
Stanza 1 contrasts the national map’s ever-changing colors due to rival political powers against the ordinary people’s physical and mental fatigue; “no matter . . . what liar’s name is inscribed upon our heads” illustrates the countless delusions “from the void on high” (“Upon Turning Thirty”) and “our” recurring disillusions with “someone else’s aspiration” (“Fantasy’s Passenger”). Stanza 2 confronts the partisan glorification of “cannon fodder” with the non-conformists’ freezing, starving, and sinking “beneath the carnage;” “the inescapable throng” sums up the “pack of beasts” (“Departure”), the “impenetrable throng” (“Nature’s Dream”), and “the unbreakable white day” that suffocates “the new-born hope” (“Rift”).
Stanza 3 uses language of enhanced severity to render Mu Dan’s verdict. First, “all the evil dug out / nails us into the present,” proclaims the deterioration of “the present” from “our” imprisonment by “a poisonous link” (“Departure”) to “our” crucifixion by the ubiquitous “evil.” Second, “a collective despair growing / absorbs Tomorrow as its nourishment,” declares the increasing peril of “Tomorrow” from being “reformed” (“Rift”) to being consumed, diametrically opposed to the idealistic-progressive views of those rallying under L’Internationale. Finally, the poem’s single full stop combined with its single colon breaks its punctuation pattern and highlights Mu Dan’s culminating judgment, “no beautiful prophecies can reverse our paralysis: / this pale world is demanding of us humiliating martyrdom.” All the “beautiful prophecies”—songs of the “conspirators” (“May”), sermons of the “almsgivers” (“Nature’s Dream”), “your” rationalizations (“Harming”), “Your” teachings (“Departure”), the “ornamental ideal” (“Fantasy’s Passenger”), and the promise of “the invisible master” (“Upon Turning Thirty”)—prove to be futile. What “this pale world is demanding of us” is more horrifying than what the jungle demanded of the CEF soldiers: they at least volunteered to fight and shed their blood as “heroes,” but “we were utterly unwilling” yet are “bound to bleed anew.” The paradoxical phrase “humiliating martyrdom” is the long-suspended revelation of the poem title: against the reader’s expectation, the subject is not an ennobling martyrdom, but a sacrifice that is ordered, manufactured, betrayed, and extolled by the “liars” armed with iron fists. In the human jungle, “we” are slaves and martyrs.
In October of 1947, a nation suffocated, a poet burst forth. Besides “Martyrdom,” Mu Dan composed six other poems in this month and published all of them under “Mu Dan’s Poetry” in Yishi Bao: Literature Weekly (Tianjin, 1947.11.22), edited by Shen Congwen, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Four out of the seven poems—“Martyrdom,” “Triumph,” “Hand,” and “Violence”—employ the plural subject of “we” to give voice to a voiceless people. Their exposure of China’s deadlocked situation exemplifies the razor-sharp critique of contemporary society advocated by Shen in “Modeling on Lu Xun” (Yishi Bao: Literature Weekly, 1947.11.1).
The recurring arc of “from . . . to . . . ,” aided by unfailingly patterned punctuation, constructs the poem’s spine. It spans the phenomena characteristic of modern China, which, in Mu Dan’s perception, manifest both the bright and dark sides of “violence,” physical and mental. On the bright side are revolutionary zeal, patriotic spirit, relentless pursuit of truth, and youthful passion for newly conceived ideals. They contribute to “the rise of a people” and the “building and rebuilding” of “human values.” On the dark side are endless wars, fabricated truths, and new ideals’ deterioration. They result in truth’s decay into “deceit,” “civilization’s meticulous scheming,” and “the overthrow of human values.” Each stanza is a compact sentence that ends in the common refrain of a grand evocation: “Your flames,” “Your fangs,” “Your iron fist,” and “Your shadow.” “Violence” exposes the common thread through Mu Dan’s previous poems: violent youth, violent war, violent disillusion, violent maturity, and violent sacrifice. On top of all this, the poem’s rigid form, dense imagery, and stringent argumentation deliver its own rhetorical violence.
Furthermore, the poem exposes the inseparability of violence, history, and humanity. From “History’s unfair beginning / to its wavering never-ending end” continues Mu Dan’s exploration of history, as expressed in “History’s spiral groove” (“May”), History’s secretive path (“The Jungle’s Allure”), and Time’s double-edged “caprice” (“Upon Turning Thirty”). “From our present’s nightmare / to Tomorrow’s dubious parturition of heaven” articulates his mistrust of idealistic-progressive projects, resonating with the “Tomorrow” reformed by “Today” (“Rift”) and that absorbed by “a collective despair” (“Martyrdom”). Also noteworthy is Mu Dan’s nuanced use of “parturition”: compared to “the pain of parturition” (“May”), “dubious parturition” underlines the improbability of realizing “heaven.” As a whole, the perpetual recurrence of “from . . . to . . .” illustrates a view of history that echoes Kierkegaard’s “repetition” or Nietzsche’s “eternal return.” The preposition that breaks the recurring arc, “until” (line 19), proclaims the finality of death. In contrast to infinite time and history, a human being’s life is finite and does not recur. On the dark side of “violence,” “an infant’s first cry” and “his unyielded death” may imply the shock of arriving in the human world filled with misery and an unfulfilled life terminated by violence. On the bright side, they may imply the sublime declaration of a new life and the violence of resistance against death. That history and humanity would not exist without violence is reinforced by “inherit” in the final line, which in Chinese exclusively refers to genetic inheritance. The poem thus invites the reader to ponder this genealogy of violence.
As Mu Dan’s poetry on “sacrifice” contrasts a heroic against a humiliating martyrdom, Mu Dan’s poetry of “exposure” contrasts an aggressive voice that exposes current issues against an empathetic voice that expresses the vulnerability of being exposed to them. In juxtaposition with the full disclosure of violence in “Violence,” “Hungry China,” a series of seven poems composed between January and August 1947, depicts China’s vulnerability to a ferocious “hunger,” physical and mental. The series’ publication in Literature Magazine (1948.1) was accompanied by its chief editor Zhu Guangqian’s thesis, “Modern Chinese Literature.” As a leading critic, Zhu contextualizes China’s literary evolution within its overall history of the past fifty years, during which “China’s weaknesses have been exposed in every respect.” Against this background, Zhu exposes the vehement dissention between the Left and the Right, criticizing the unproven “proletarian literature” theory of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers and its counter-productive exploitation by other partisan writers and especially propagandists. At the same time, Zhu appreciates the creative practice of liberal writers such as Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Wen Yiduo, and Mu Dan, identifying them as the founders and trail-blazers of modern Chinese literature.
The first poem of the seven focuses on children. Hunger is their soul; dull light fills their eyes; strangers’ disdain fills their bellies; their empty little shells fill the vast empty space as the empty little hopes fill the vast old land of China, “which no man has the courage to reclaim.” Echoing the view of “Tomorrow” in “Rift,” “Martyrdom,” and “Violence,” these children embody a malnourished future that begs from the present and receives only contempt and hesitation, an innocent future that History unfairly orders to pay the past’s debt, and a fragile future that perishes at every corner. The poet’s sympathy is strongest in the final line, “Around his little body, helpless and despairing, / contracts the future—yours and mine.” Recalling Lu Xun’s May Fourth imperative, “Save the children” (“Diary of a Madman,” New Youth, 1918.5), Mu Dan underscores the fatal exposure of China’s future to its bankrupt past and its heartless present.
The last poem of the seven was previously published as the last poem of the series “Sentiments of Our Time” (Yishi Bao: Literature Weekly, 1947.2.8). The plural “we” alludes to the “even colder and more famished” souls in “Martyrdom,” who, though “trapped beneath the carnage,” long “to leap out of the inescapable throng.” Unlike the ordinary people who “bear a collective pale” and have no “courage to reclaim” the ruined land, “we” take pride in “our bright blood” filled with rare “courage.” Unlike the ordinary people who are “nailed into the present” and unable to prevent “the future” from contracting, “we” take the responsibility of blazing “a trail through the unnamed darkness.” Focusing on the extraordinary “we,” the seventh poem of “Hungry China” tells in each stanza of “our” desperate circumstances: lack of guidance, truth, prospect, and protection. “Our” sole companions are “the dead” whose eyes twinkle “in our despair with flames of tears” and whose bones—an homage, above all, to “the Sacred Bones of the Hukawng Valley”—are pierced by the same “cold” that “threatens to ruin our life.” No less vulnerable than the children in the first poem, “we” are exposed to the accumulated humiliation from the past and the demoralizing emptiness of the present.
However, the poem starts and ends with a reassuring paradox: “We hope that we may have a hope . . . we hope only that we have a hope as revenge.” By using “hope” both as a noun and a verb, the refrain testifies to the simultaneous absence and presence of hope. The assurance transforms into a threat in “revenge,” the last word of the poem as well as the series. Recalling the “unyielded death” that concludes “Violence” with the violence of resistance, “our” hoping for “revenge” concludes “Hungry China” with a vindictive hope.
“Shifting heavens, quaking earth.” Though ancient, the opening to the Thousand Character Classic perfectly captures the socio-political climate of China in 1948 and the destiny of the pioneers of its literature. Mu Dan is a striking example. In February, his anthology Flag appeared as the single poetry collection in the preeminent book series “Literature” (Series 9, Book 16) edited by Ba Jin, one of the most widely read writers of the 20th century. In May, four months after promoting “Hungry China” in Literature Magazine, Zhu Guangqian edited a special issue on poetry and chose to close it with Mu Dan’s epic poem, “Revelation.” In June, China’s New Poetry, retrospectively acknowledged as a groundbreaking journal, launched its first issue and opened a new forum for Mu Dan. There, he published seven poems in three themed issues: “Time and Flag” (1948.6), “Harvest Season” (1948.8), and “Life on Trial” (1948.9).
At the same time, however, the totalitarian rhetoric of the leftist critics and their concerted attacks on non-partisan writers dominated the public media. This phenomenon is particularly apparent in the onslaught upon China’s New Poetry and Mu Dan by the journal New Trends in Poetry. Its third issue, “The Direction of New Poetry” (1948.7), featured an article denouncing China’s New Poetry as “the evil current” “born of deadly toxins” and Mu Dan as “a rotten intellectual” “fed by the old world and its poisonous blood.” Its fourth issue, “Theory and Critique” (1948.12), featured a pair of condemning articles. The first asserts that in the next decade, all individualistic heroism would inevitably become the sewage of time. It then interprets quotes from Mu Dan’s poem “Violence”—“from History’s unfair beginning / to its wavering never-ending end,” for instance—as evidence of the decadence of Mu Dan’s world view and of his advocacy of nihilism. The second article uses an imperative as its title, “Kick Away These Stumbling Blocks,” and cites Mu Dan’s anthology Flag—“cold wind blows into Today and Tomorrow,” “years of humiliation,” and “voiceless anguish,” among others—to infer that Mu Dan denies the power of the people and their revolutionary potential. It renders the verdict that in the era of the awakened people, Mu Dan and his like should no longer be allowed to exist.13
Indeed, by the end of 1948, all forums for Mu Dan’s voice—China’s New Poetry, Literature Magazine, Renaissance, Yishi Bao: Literature Weekly, and Ta Kung Pao: Literature and Art—had ceased to exist. On the verge of drowning in silence, Mu Dan decided to travel to Bangkok as an interpreter for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Prior to his departure, Mu Dan finalized the conception and content of a self-edited anthology. He selected eighty poems that he composed between 1937 and 1948 to illuminate four stages of intellectual growth he identified for the generation born during the New Culture Movement: “Expedition into Uncertainty (1937–1941),” “Revelation (1941–1945),” “Flag (1941–1945),” and “Fruit of Anguish (1947–1948).”14
The bitter closure of this unpublished anthology opened a new chapter of Mu Dan’s life history. In August 1949, he voyaged from Thailand to the United States and started pursuing a master’s degree in English at the University of Chicago. There he furthered his study of contemporary English poetry, an interest first kindled by noted critic William Empson, Mu Dan’s mentor at Southwestern Associated University from 1937 to 1939. Also at the University of Chicago, Mu Dan expanded his horizons by taking courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, and Restoration Drama. Moreover, Mu Dan revisited his own poetry and rewrote twelve of them in English, including “Revelation” and “Flag,” the two poems that he chose in 1948 to epitomize Chinese intellectual growth between 1941 and 1945.
Two sets of allusions can be identified in “Revelation”—allusions to contemporary English poetry (Yeats, Eliot, and Auden) and allusions to the Bible (Hagiographa and the Gospel of Matthew). Their blending has made the poem a worthy subject for a comparative study between Mu Dan and his Western sources. Reading poetry as history, however, allows access to Mu Dan’s intellectual growth from 1948, when he published “Revelation” in the special issue of Literature Magazine (1948.5), to 1951, when he rewrote it in English. The most evident change occurs in the poem’s allegorical message. In Mu Dan’s Chinese version, the trilogy was sequenced as “The Sermon,” “The Pilgrimage,” and “The Supplication.” Here, by reshaping the trilogy into “The Pilgrimage,” “The Supplication,” and “The Fountainhead,” Mu Dan transforms “Revelation” from a people hearing a sermon and coming to prayer into a people on a pilgrimage discovering the fountainhead.
A resonant change occurs in Part 3. In Mu Dan’s 1948 version, the third-from-final stanza read: “When we weep, we already have no tears / when we laugh, we already have no sounds / when we love, we already have nothing to give / all is already late, yet not too late, when we know that we know not.”16 There, all the previously articulated issues in the poem—from the lopsided development of the 20th century that resulted in a dark and desolate planet, to the collision of pseudo-centers in China that killed the seed of its three-thousand-year-old culture—triumphed. “Our” loss was a fact; “we” were left with no choice but to “turn around.” Here, in the third-from-final stanza, Mu Dan uses the subjunctive case to turn the irreversible fact into a potential that “we” can and must prevent. Consequently, the ending of the poem is no longer “our” supplication for a belated salvation of “our” desperate situation. Rather, it advocates a preventive action: to turn from the clamoring chaos of the human jungle to the soothing flow of “the fountainhead of being,” from “our” collective blindness that makes “the half-truth” “our belief” to the cosmic wisdom that opens “our” eyes, and from the overthrow of human values that disables and divides “us” to the fulfillment and harmony of “our” life.
The shift in Mu Dan’s “Revelation” from despair to hope and from gloom to light reflects the newly found joy in his personal life as well as his newly developed vision of China. While at the University of Chicago, Mu Dan began his happy marriage of twenty-eight years (until his death) to Zhou Yuliang, a PhD candidate in Biology, studied Mao Zedong’s theses such as “On New Democracy,” and organized a “China Study Group” to brainstorm the situation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) founded in October 1949. This group drew in several of the most extraordinary minds of Mu Dan’s generation: Yang Zhenning and Li Zhengdao, who later became professors at Princeton and Columbia and jointly received the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics; Zou Dang, who later became a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on 20th-century Chinese politics; and Wu Ningkun, who later became known for his Chinese translations of James, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck and his 1993 English memoir, A Single Tear—A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China. Despite their common interest, the group members went their separate ways. Yang, Li, and Zhou decided to stay; Mu Dan decided to follow Wu, who journeyed home in 1951 because, as stated in A Single Tear, the “lure of a meaningful life in a brave new world outweighed the attraction of a doctorate and an academic future in an alien land.”17
Mu Dan wrote no memoir. His revelations as a Chinese intellectual are demonstrated in his poetry. “Flag” is one such revelation. In May 1945, Mu Dan composed the poem in Chinese to reflect upon the end of WWII in the European theatre and published it in Yishi Bao: Literature Weekly (1947.6.7) as part of the series “War of Resistance Recorded in Poetry.” Mu Dan’s 1951 English revision voices his sentiments as he pondered in the United States what Mao called “New China.”
Compared to the 1945 original, the continuity of Mu Dan’s thoughts is evident in the tension built through interrelated contradictions. Utterances that argue against one another question whether “flag,” the title figure, stands for the reality or rhetoric of freedom, the constructive or destructive power of pragmatism, and the possibility or impossibility of pure ideology. In punctuation however, the 1951 version differs drastically. The original “Flag” employed only commas and periods and wove them into a pattern that gave each stanza a coherent structure and integrated all stanzas into a compact whole. Its rigid structure, like that of the 1947 “Violence,” presented the contradictions throughout the poem as a thought-out discussion of the many facets of a complex emblem. By contrast, Mu Dan’s revision employs erratic punctuation that urges constant, abrupt stops within each stanza and turns the poem into a shattered whole. This fragmented structure straddles the line between ode and prose poem.
As an ode, the lofty tone and psalmic gesture of Mu Dan’s rewriting outbalance its thematic contradictions and paint the “flag” in a bright hue. Historical events recorded in this light span the heroic martyrdom of the CEF soldiers in the Burmese jungle, the iconic moment of raising a US flag on Iwo Jima, the Allied victory of World War II in September 1945, and the first Five-star Red Flag flown over Tiananmen Square as the flag of the PRC on October 1, 1949. The idealistic-optimistic glow of the 1951 “Flag,” though uncharacteristic of Mu Dan, manifests his innate patriotic passion and national pride that were intensified by the promise of a new China and the Red Scare (1947–1957) in the United States.
As a prose poem, Mu Dan’s rewriting lacks the coherence and precision of the original yet indicates a curious stream of consciousness that betrays his inner conflict. This is further evidenced in the alteration of the poem’s ending. In the 1945 version, the final stanza read: “The storm all around, you feel it first, / you are the direction of all, through you victory is cemented, / we love you, now you belong to the people.”19 There, the flag received the storm, accompanied all, and cemented a victory that had already been achieved. Historically speaking, this victory alludes to the Allied victory of WWII in the European theater. In the final stanza of the 1951 revision, however, the flag signals the storm, directs all, and leads “us” into battle and hopefully victory. Thus, it stands tall at the end of the poem as “our” guide, “our” compass, “our” commander, and “our” hope. The flag is no longer a monument to which “we” emotionally cleave; it is the enlightenment that “we value most.” In this light, the last phrase—“in the hands of the people”—suggests a dual reference: “We the People” in the constitution of the U.S. and “the new forces of the people” (the various revolutionary classes) in Mao’s “On New Democracy.” For Mu Dan, the victory toward which the new “flag” points Chinese intellectuals is unparalleled in history: the realization of true democracy in their motherland. This motivated him to intensify his Russian studies at the University of Chicago, in hopes of making his Pushkin translation a tribute to the New China.
The ongoing Korean War (1950–1953) and the aggravated anti-China sentiment made Mu Dan and his science-educated wife suspicious in the eyes of the US government, which did not permit their journey until the end of 1952. Likewise, Mu Dan’s status as an intellectual from abroad made him suspicious in the eyes of the PRC, which received him in January 1953 with a week-long investigation that questioned his perception of the New China and his motives to return. Absent from the movements such as the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (1950–1953) and the Three-Anti and Five-Anti Campaigns (1951–1952), Mu Dan arrived in a homeland that baffled him. Moreover, literary creation had become an ideologically sensitive area; the new literary norms did not allow poetry to remain an independent, unpoliticized discipline. After 1949, the advocates of independent poetry and their works were systematically deleted from the historical accounts and anthologies of modern Chinese literature; their voices were strategically buried and forgotten. Thus, not only was China an alien society to Mu Dan, but he an alien poet to China.
Mu Dan first wished to serve his country and make a living as a freelance translator, which would afford him the freedom to observe and contemplate. However, his friends persuaded him to accept a position at Nankai University. The immediate consequence was boredom, suffocation, and loneliness. Encouraged by Ba Jin, who published Mu Dan’s Flag in 1948, and Ba Jin’s wife Xiao Shan, an esteemed translator and editor, Mu Dan dedicated his personal time to translation. During his formative years and under the poetic influence of Empson, Mu Dan had published his translations of MacNeice’s essay “Obscurity,” Roberts’ critique “Death of a Classicism,” and Day Lewis’ poem “Overtures to Death,” all of which informed his own poetry. In 1950s China, however, Western Modernism was condemned as the decadent literature of the declining 20th-century bourgeoisie. Thus, Mu Dan had to alter his translating choice to the dictates of the new era. His first success came with the publication of his translation of a textbook series by the Soviet theorist Timofeev. In January 1954, Mu Dan sent a copy to Xiao Shan, noting: “This is the sign of your victory.” His ambition as a poet-translator, however, was fulfilled by his success in creating a Chinese voice for Pushkin, Blake, Byron, Longfellow, Shelley, and Keats.
Yet all these endeavors and achievements did not shield him from petty workplace entanglements that led to serious reprisals during the national Campaign to Wipe Out Hidden Counterrevolutionaries (1955–1956). Filling out forms, scrutinizing his past, confessing to alleged crimes, and vowing self-reform became Mu Dan’s routine life. Precisely at this point, another national campaign that Mao launched in May 1956 under the slogan, “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” accelerated. Ever-increasing criticism of communist policies and demands for change in all areas of society grew into a sort of “Chinese Spring” in 1957, whereupon a thaw in the literary field occurred. The transition from 1956 to 1957, therefore, marked a critical moment for Mu Dan: exonerated by the Campaign to Wipe Out Hidden Counterrevolutionaries, enticed by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and turning forty—an age at which one should, according to Confucius, “have no doubts.” The silent poet was ready to be heard.
His desire to convert himself to be a good poet-citizen struggling with his own integrity, Mu Dan wrote “A Funeral Song” to explore the many forms of conversion demanded of Chinese intellectuals. In juxtaposition with the previous trilogies—the sequence of “Sermon,” “Pilgrimage,” and “Supplication” in the Chinese “Revelation” and the sequence of “Pilgrimage,” “Supplication,” and “Fountainhead” in its English revision—Mu Dan’s 1957 trilogy implies a sequence of “Pilgrimage,” “Sermon,” and “Supplication.”
Part 1 starts and ends with an upbeat line, “Heavens so blue and sunlight so warm,” alluding to the Hundred Flowers Campaign that promises a new day for Chinese intellectuals. The stanzas in between, however, narrate in historical present “my” agonizing struggles to bid farewell to “my past self.” From the figurative spring outing, new life, and forlorn island to the actual New China Bookstore, Tiananmen Square, and urban reconstruction, “my” pilgrimage to the New China records a generation’s observation and reflection, looking forward and backward in elation and nostalgia. By indenting every other line, Mu Dan chisels Part 1 into a zigzag pattern that visually underscores his conflicting opinions on the conversion or “thought reform” of intellectuals. Consequently, “my” last word to “my past self,” “rest in peace, let my joy be your elegy!,” articulates Mu Dan’s sincere desire to embrace the new era as well as his recognition of irretrievable loss.
Part 2 repeats a command, “Bury, bury, bury!,” alluding to the New China’s dictate to bury “the old.” A personified “Hope” warns of the poison of “Remembrance,” the prison of “Pride,” and the enmity of “Fear”—the foundations of “Self” or individuality—and thrice commands an undecided “me” to “abandon all” and convert to the “Faith” on the opposite shore. Finally persuaded by the sermon of “Hope,” “I cannot help but” adopt its command as “my” self-denial, seeking a baptism that may remove “my” doubt and “confusion.” By inserting question marks that indicate both rhetorical and genuine questions in the utterances of “Hope” and “mine,” Mu Dan contrasts the forcible rhetoric of political sermons with the agonizing quest of intellectuals like him. Part 2 closes, like Part 1, in a paradoxical, sorrow-filled joy—“the joy of confession.”
Part 3 concludes the trilogy with the supplication of “an intellectual from the old world” to the “readers” and “comrades” who stand for “the new.” After “my” pilgrimage that eliminates “my past self” and the sermon of “Hope” that annihilates “my ‘Self,’ ” all that the impoverished heart retains is a half complete funeral song. The humbled and diminished “I” supplicates himself to the common people, the new gods, for guidance to convert the “second half” into “life,” an allusion to the assertion that literature is subordinate to life and especially politics. By leaving “A Funeral Song” unfinished, explaining its halfness with an ellipsis, and requesting help for its actualization, Mu Dan simultaneously questions that assertion and expresses willingness to test it. The paradoxical joy recurs: the joy of “a bird flying out of a long dark tunnel,” which, despite its heavy burden, “is determined to march forward” with the people.
Contextualizing Mu Dan’s 1957 trilogy within his pre-1949 poetry further reveals the anguish and irony of conversion. Part 1 initiates a dialogue with “Upon Turning Thirty.” Mu Dan composed both poems around his critical birthdays, pondering how an intellectual in modern China, when turning thirty, takes a stand, and, when turning forty, overcomes doubt. Read side by side, the lines in “Upon Turning Thirty”—“an unaged man steps into youth’s shadow: rediscovering himself, within destruction’s flames” and “upon every moment’s collapse, I see a me staring back hostilely”—seem to foretell “A Funeral Song”: the confrontation between “my” current and past selves and the latter’s being crushed by “a mighty fire.” The resolute “I” in “Upon Turning Thirty” fights “all that is detestable” by raising “earth, thought, and glory” and reaches maturity by “rediscovering himself;” the cautious “I” in “A Funeral Song,” however, tries to adjust himself to the environment and to sing a joyful elegy for his departed self.
Part 2 engages with “The Jungle’s Allure.” Both poems can be read as symbolic dramas on temptation and resistance. The lopsided duel between the unmovable, immortal “jungle” and the awe-struck, paralyzed “man” finds an echo in the duel between “Hope” and “me.” The threats and persuasions of “Hope” that endeavor to convert “me” to “the world on the opposite shore” recall, in particular, the jungle’s last speech: “I will lead you across darkness’ threshold; / all that is beautiful, under my invisible control, / all on this side, waits for you to wither and arrive.” In parallel to the man’s submission to the jungle’s demand, the hesitant “I” is finally persuaded by “Hope” and willing to depart from “death’s door” for the “Faith” across the sea.
Part 3 recalls “Fantasy’s Passenger,” Mu Dan’s only pre-1949 poem in which he addresses the reader explicitly. There, he employed a rhetorical wink and unveiled a spectacle: “Dear reader, now you will admire and sigh.” Part 3 of “A Funeral Song,” however, demonstrates a radical change in tone and message. Mu Dan identifies himself as “an intellectual from the old world,” while using the plural “you” to identify the readers as the people who, according to the New China’s pronouncement, have assumed superiority, authority, and power. The reversal of the relationship between Mu Dan and his audience from master of ceremonies to supplicant is as unnerving as the change in his attitude. In “Fantasy’s Passenger,” Mu Dan criticized a socio-political web based on cowardliness and blindness while mocking “the grandeur of playing the master.” Here, in the Chinese Spring of 1957, Mu Dan wished to abandon the “long dark tunnel” that had provided his independence and solitude for contemplation and to “fly out to meet sunlight” and “comrades” in hopes of overcoming his inherent skepticism and completing his conversion to “the new world.”
Shortly after the publication of “A Funeral Song” in Poetry Magazine (1957.5), Mu Dan’s “Seven Poems” appeared in People’s Literature (1957.7). Echoing the two seven-poem series, “Mu Dan’s Poetry” (Yishibao, 1947.11) and “Hungry China” (Literature Magazine, 1948.1), Mu Dan’s new series evidences his burst of creativity. Among these seven poems, “My Uncle Died” is the most nuanced, penetrating, and suggestive of its time.
In its original form, the poem arranges Chinese characters into lines and stanzas mathematically equal: ten characters in each line, three rectangular stanzas. This clearly defined form, however, is undermined by the ambiguity in almost every word. Take “poison” (line 4), “hope” (line 8), and “Equalization” (line 9) for example.
The immediate surroundings of “poison”—the preceding colon, the ensuing question mark, and the pronounced “here”—prompt the reader to ponder its allusions. The most obvious reference is “feudalism’s restoration”: in 1950s China, if a family member was officially classified as part of the feudal order, like Mu Dan’s uncle, expressing grief upon their death would be interpreted as an attempt to restore feudalism or the “poisonous” past, hence a crime. A second possibility is informed by “laugh”: laughing at the absurdity of the above-mentioned interpretation would be considered an offence against political authority, hence “a cup of poison.” A third bridge is built with “I dare not laugh”: if, for fear of punishment, “I dare not laugh” at the absurd socio-political rule, “my” cowardliness and conformity would ultimately poison “my” integrity and independence. A fourth possibility is the total of the first three lines, namely, “my” dilemma: “I” could neither “weep” nor “laugh” for fear of being interpreted as poisonous either way and punished accordingly. Thus, a relative’s death led to a paralyzed “me”—converted into one of the many who dare not express real emotions or thoughts under a totalitarian regime. “Here” in the catch-22 of 1950s China, “is there not a cup of poison” for anyone who wants to live humanly and authentically? Is this paradoxical rule not the return of what Mu Dan in his 1942 “Departure” called “a poisonous link in Your plan” that “imprisons us in the present”? Finally, the poem points to itself as “a cup of poison”: “here” among all the possible allusions, only the first two are politically sanctioned. The subversive messages present a double-edged threat: to the poet, if detected by the ruling power; and to the ruling power, if detected by the reader.
“Hope” in Stanza 2 is no less complex. It echoes the line, “a child’s warm little hand,” alluding to innocence, tenderness, the warmth of spring, and the anticipation of the future. Yet, its meticulously phrased context, “my joy once again wants to drop a tear, / but before it drops, hope rebuffs it,” renders “hope” artificial and oppressive. This is because the recurring frame, “wants to . . . but,” links the “hope” that halts “my” human expression to the unnamed power in Stanza 1 that forbids “me” from weeping or laughing with nonsensical yet indisputable laws. Further, “hope” is the name of the political preacher in Part 2 of “A Funeral Song.” There, “Hope” manipulates a fearful “me” by denouncing “my” past as the source of “poisonous blood” and accusing “my” remembrance of disabling “me” from converting to the new “Faith.” Clearly, the concept of hope in Mu Dan’s 1957 poetry is suspicious.
“Equalization” in Stanza 3, at first glance, suggests a balance between the many intertwined conflicts of body, mind, and heart, as exhibited in Stanzas 1–2: weep vs. laugh, want vs. dare, uncle vs. child, cold vs. warm, and tear vs. hope. “Equalization” seems to have eliminated all these conflicts and created an ideal balance—the balance of “a tree” between its “dark secret roots” and “bright sunlit leaves.” This reading is also supported by the poem’s mathematically equal form that lessens its thematic tension. However, when compared to Mu Dan’s 1940s poetry, “equalization” reveals an idiosyncratic criticism. Distinct from the word’s common usage, Mu Dan uses “equalization” to indicate an authoritarian pressure, as articulated in his 1941 “Harming”: “I am unwilling to exist like paralyzed truth, / equalizing, rationalizing, or even pitying / all of those twisted triumphs and defeats.” There, equalization was a tool of the paralyzed truth, designed to obliterate twists and interpret history in favor of those who hold truth captive. Here in “My Uncle Died,” equalization is a tool of the unnamed power in Stanza 1 and “hope” in Stanza 2, designed to convert a human into a tree that automatically follows the sun. Like “equalization,” “sunlight” has been a dubious concept in Mu Dan’s poetry. This is evident in his 1944 “Rift”: “All this, I have seen, is a conspiracy; / armed with sunlight, it matures us day by day” and “The winged glide; the sunlit / thrive. He pursues, stumbling into darkness.” There, sunlight was a weapon of the partisans to promote obedience and crush dissidence. Even in Mu Dan’s 1957 “A Funeral Song,” sunlight is still rendered as suspicious as “hope”: “Thousands upon thousands of your words wrestle entanglements, / but how can a dark shadow rebuff sunlight?” Within this context, the final image of “My Uncle Died” may well suggest a non-conformist’s intrinsic resistance to the ruling power in the form of the “sap” that relentlessly agitates the predominant sunlight with its self-sustaining darkness. Thus, the conversion portrayed in “My Uncle Died” is as incomplete as the conversion in “A Funeral Song.”
Mu Dan’s debut in Poetry Magazine, launched in January 1957 during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and in People’s Literature, founded at the same time as the PRC in October 1949, represented the return of a generation of “old” writers to the nation’s central forums. In Poetry Magazine (1957.5), “A Funeral Song” accompanies the poem “Thaw” by Du Yunxie, Mu Dan’s poet friend, and the letter “On Poetry” by Lao She, a writer of the same caliber as Shen Congwen and Ba Jin. In People’s Literature (1957.7, an “Extra Large Issue” spanning 190 pages), Mu Dan’s “Seven Poems” accompany the works of a string of renowned writers such as Shen Congwen, Lao She, and Qiming, Lu Xun’s brother, an exquisite essayist in his own right. Also noteworthy is “An Open Letter to Poets” by Li Baifeng, a poet who, like Mu Dan, thrived in 1940s China. In this letter, Li identifies the counterproductive rules in new literary circles as self-censorship by poets and censorship by editors. Resonating with the symbolic title of Du’s “Thaw” and the open-mindedness promoted in Lao She’s “On Poetry,” Li advocates the full blooming of a hundred flowers, meaning the liberation of topics, styles, and individual opinions, in hopes of breaking the ice that has frozen the creation of poetry.22
But the wind suddenly changed direction. Hardly had the Hundred Flowers Campaign been terminated, when Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Both Poetry Magazine and People’s Literature made a sharp turn and began attacking those who embraced the short-lived “spring.” Regarding Mu Dan, between September 1957 and August 1958, both forums featured assaults upon “A Funeral Song” and “Seven Poems.” These attacks were authored by a variety of “authorities”: professional propagandists, intellectuals-turned-bureaucrats, editorial boards on behalf of their “readers,” and, above all, the Proletariat. Their ambushes shared totalitarian rhetoric adopted from the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Analyzing poetry as political discourse, they judged poets as good or bad servants of the people, or more accurately, allies or enemies of the party. Thus, Mu Dan’s “A Funeral Song” was stamped as “defamation of the Thought Reform of Intellectuals by a non-reformed intellectual.” The lines, “If even my “Self” is lost, / where shall I look for my home?,” were labeled as “glorifying the Individualism of the Capitalist Class.” The final stanza of “My Uncle Died” became another target. Two assailants cited it—albeit with a repeated accidental misquote that demonstrates how judgements were simply copied—as an example of “inaccessibility to the people.” One stamped the stanza as “the restoration of the taste of the Bourgeoisie;” the other labeled it as “Salon-thoughts without consideration as to whom the poet serves.” The violence of these orchestrated ambushes was most graphic in “Soldiers on Poetry”: “Mu Dan’s ‘Seven Poems’ and their like—we will kick them away, as we stab an enemy to death.”23
Mu Dan and his like were “stabbed to death”—as writers and critics. On December 18, 1958, the Intermediate People’s Court (Tianjin) announced its verdict at Nankai University (NKU): Mu Dan was convicted of being a “historical counterrevolutionary.” Listed crimes include his 1930s “reactionary” poetry in “enemy newspapers,” 1940s service in the “enemy army” and “enemy party,” 1948 employment at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1954 “anti-authority” activities at NKU, and 1957 “anti-party” publications. NKU proclaimed this conviction to be a vaunted achievement—a “satellite” launched on behalf of the Anti-Rightist Campaign. In January 1959, Mu Dan the “counterrevolutionary” started his forced labor, cleaning toilets and hallways at NKU under the supervision of former janitors. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Mu Dan and his wife were labeled and treated as “cow demons and snake spirits”: Red Guards broke into their house and hung Big-Character Posters everywhere that threatened to “smash the dog head of the counterrevolutionary;” their house was confiscated, and the family of six was forced to live in a room of 180 square feet for five years.24
The title “Becoming ‘Me’” calls to mind a recurring question in Mu Dan’s poetry: how “I come into being.” His response evolved through the different stages of his life. In his 1940 “May,” an egoistic, iconoclastic “I” celebrates the violence of revolution and his rebirth “through History’s spiral groove,” convicts the conspirators of modern slavery, frees the rebels from the ancient prison and leads them into anarchy. In his 1942 “Nature’s Dream,” “I,” a jungle war survivor, awakens from wartime indoctrination and “the wisdom of the human world” to reclaim his cosmic heritage. In his 1947 “Upon Turning Thirty,” an “I” from “atomic dust” ponders his relationship with Time, realizes that “through continuously bearing its caprice I come into being,” and proves his maturity by accepting Time the refuter as a companion. In his 1957 “My Uncle Died,” a patriotic, half-converted “I” likens his simultaneous desire for and caution against the Hundred Flowers Campaign to a tree whose “branches slowly extend towards spring.” All of these narratives portray an “I” who has been active in his becoming. By contrast, the “I” in Mu Dan’s 1976 “Becoming ‘Me’ ” is utterly passive. Throughout the first four stanzas, all actions are taken by others and imposed upon “me.” Having no say whatsoever in his becoming, the “I” turns out to be a mere dot on the grid.
The “grid” indeed is the catalyst for “my” becoming. Omnipresent, complex, and impenetrable, it covers the world as modern media propaganda networks; molding machines in the form of cowsheds, labor camps, and prison cells that reform every intellectual cast into them; two-faced bureaucrats throughout the chain of command who play slaves to their superiors and masters to their inferiors; social climbers who rise to authority by crushing dissidents and non-conformists; and official forms, forced confessions, and incontestable verdicts that sacrifice individuals to fulfill institutional quotas demanded by national campaigns. From this perspective, “Becoming ‘Me’” tells the story of how the “I” has become a counterfeit “me,” manufactured, distributed, and sealed by the grid. The quotation marks around “Me” in the poem title signal this conversion.
Yet the poem does not end here. “As if” begins the final stanza that retells the story from an alternate perspective. Stanzas 1–4 can be interpreted as a dream in the sleep of madness. What happened to “me” happened to “a mad lady;” “my” becoming coincided with her becoming. She can be read as a generic person or even the nation as a whole. The distinction between her and “me” lies in the consequence: conformed to the collective frenzy, she confused anomaly with norm, perceived the decades-long nightmare as a twinkling moment, and was able to wake up swiftly—though mad still—to a seemingly bright day. “I” by contrast, resisted conformity and retained the lucidity that enabled “me” to detach “my” authentic self from “my” official profile and to stay alert to absurdity. Unlike the mad lady, “I” could not wake up because “I” was never asleep. Nor could “I” quickly see a bright day because, after going through the decades-long turmoil, “I” was afraid of the beginning of another dream. “My” alienation from “my” environment recalls a scenario in “The Jungle’s Allure,” in which the man observes his “dissonant journey” into the jungle: “no beginning, no end, held spellbound in an incomprehensible dream.” In “Becoming ‘Me,’ ” the grid replaces the jungle and holds the nation spellbound in an odd dream, and the bright day may allude to what the jungle declares: “one dream gone, another dream comes to replace it.” In this sense, “my” awareness of being “nailed” and “my” skepticism of the bright day demonstrate the ultimate failure of the grid to conform “me;” its increasingly perverse conversion tactics have only pushed the once half-converted “me” back to the opposite side.
The tales of becoming “me,” a dissident individual, and becoming the mad lady, a conformist society, are complemented by another tale of becoming, as told in “The Good Dream,” a poem from the same year.
“The good dream’s short life” is a Chinese idiom that indicates the impossible—or at best momentary—actualization of an ideal whose purity and perfection can only survive in theory. By erasing the idiom’s second half in the title while citing it in full in the refrain that concludes each stanza, Mu Dan creates an ironic tension between the title that seems to promise a revision of the idiom and the poem that tells precisely how an ideal—here rendered as “It”—has failed in reality.
Stanzas 1–2 depict “Its” original appeal from two angles: “our love” for an ideal that “concentrates our fantasies” and stands for the long-expected new world, and “our” hatred of the old world or “History’s mistake” that the ideal vows to correct. This appeal is undermined, however, by two immediate twists: first, upon “Its” descent from ideology to reality, “It” reveals “a satanic wand” that dictates “our” sentiments and thoughts; second, upon “Its” submission to “practicality” in order to defeat “Its” rivals, “It” reveals a form that duplicates History’s mistake. Both twists confirm what Mu Dan in his 1947 “Violence” asserts: “From truth’s naked life / to its being loathed as deceit, / from love’s smiling blossom / to the manifesto of its fruit: every utterance exposes Your fangs.”
Stanzas 3–4 continue to tell the tale of what “It” has become and how. Unsettled by “our” diminishing passion, “It” resorts to excessive propaganda and campaigns. The abrupt transition in Stanza 3 reflects China’s erratic history: from the “many colorful landscapes” drawn by “Its” giant brush in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956–1957) and the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) to “our stumbles” and “our betrayed heart” in the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957–1959), the Great Three-Year Famine (1959-1961), and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). At the same time, unnerved by “our” earnest criticism, “It” resorts to counterfeiting, bait, and hypocrisy. The phenomena sketched in Stanza 4 echo those in “Becoming ‘Me’ ”: the circulation and inflation of deceits-turned-gold, the rise to authority of “the advantage-hungry” by worshipping a giant god sculpted from fake gold, and the refinement and expansion of rituals into a ubiquitous bureaucracy upon which “It” builds the grid.
“Its” degradation reaches the lowest point in the final stanza. Discontent with “Its” metamorphosis from lightning, thunder, and “a brilliant rainbow” into “banality,” “It” invents molding machines to “manufacture faith.” But instead of the desired miracles, “Its” indoctrination produces “merely horrifying emptiness.” This image brings back Mu Dan’s 1947 “Hungry China,” in which “emptiness” awakened “us” and taught “us” that “we are, after all, but ancestors of mankind from a distant age of bliss.” Worse still, the new emptiness caused by “It” is not entirely empty, but accompanied by “an absurdity mocked in all corners of the earth.” In this tale of becoming, the good dream is unveiled to be the absurd dream in “the sleep of a mad lady,” and the tales of becoming “me,” becoming her, and becoming “It” merge into one. Moreover, in juxtaposition with the ending of “Becoming ‘Me,’” the ending of “The Good Dream” appears to be “my” revenge: in the former, “the absurd dream nailed me;” in the latter, the “absurdity” of “It” or the short-lived “good dream” is nailed by the poet, suspended in the void, and exhibited to the world—inviting mockery and scrutiny.
Mu Dan himself did not witness his revenge. He died as a “counterrevolutionary” in February 1977. Yet, he was reborn. The conviction was overturned in 1980. “Becoming ‘Me’” and “The Good Dream” were published side by side in Ta Kung Pao: Literature (Hong Kong, 1993.8.25), with an editorial note commemorating “the 75th Anniversary of the Birth of an eminent poet and translator—Mu Dan.”
One midnight in August 1966, Mu Dan came home as a “marked” man. His head half shaved, he wore the hideous haircut given by Red Guards to humiliate “class enemies.” What shattered him, however, was the sight of his house on fire. Frozen for a moment, he then rushed to a crushed box and rescued with trembling hands a large stack of handwritten papers—his translation of Byron’s Don Juan.
Translating poetry enabled Mu Dan to bear the unbearable. During the two decades of turmoil, Byron’s Don Juan and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin were his closest companions: he dedicated six years (1962–1965 and 1972–1973) to the former and seven years (1954–1957 and 1975–1977) to the latter. “Retain a morsel of body heat, emit a morsel of light. Be a firefly in the dark, wait not for the torchlight.” Mu Dan wrote this aphorism by Lu Xun on the dedication page of his personal copy of the poet’s essays, taking it as his secret motto.27 So the silenced poet survived the dark as a dedicated translator. But as the torchlight re-emerged with the anti-cultural revolution movements—the Nanjing Incident (1976.3) and the Tiananmen Incident (1976.4)—the poet began to sing anew.
The poem’s opening scene recalls a critical moment in “A Funeral Song”: “ ‘Faith’ dwells across the sea, / a ferryboat is brought to me.” There, “Hope” enticed “me” to convert to a new faith. Meanwhile, that faith has turned out to be, as suggested in “The Good Dream,” an absurdity. Amidst horrifying emptiness, the “I” invokes “Poetry,” his old faith, to “refloat fantasy’s boat.” Rather than a welcome home, “Poetry” sternly denies “me.” It denies “my” desired motive to “howl out of pain and anger” and sing of “anguish.” It denies “my” desired style that employs “a feast of imagery” and “a chain of exclamation marks.” Reading poetry as history, this denial suggests Mu Dan’s self-criticism after his long exile from the world of poetry. Before that, “anguish” had been a leitmotif in his poems: the anguish of anticipation (“Spring”), of resistance (“Harming”), of vigilance (“Rift”), and of humiliation (“Hungry China”), to name a few. In his self-edited anthology, Mu Dan also epitomized the last stage of Chinese intellectual growth between 1937 and 1948 as the “Fruit of Anguish.” Regarding style, the young Mu Dan distinguished himself precisely by his fusion of lavish imagery, opaque language, extravagant passion, and an egoistic attitude. But the two decades of turmoil and silence enabled Mu Dan to recognize his own blind spots and reorient himself as a poet.
From “O Poetry” to the end, “my” response conveys two threads of Mu Dan’s sentiments. The first is his sentiment of resignation. Two decades before, to articulate anguish and evoke empathy and sensation was Mu Dan’s self-assigned mission, while to reach the height of master poets and pursue immortality was his artistic ambition. Now, recognizing the absence of his readers as well as the vanity and futility of his pursuit, Mu Dan resigns: “Silence affords the highest testimony to anguish.” The second thread is his sentiment of persistence. This is condensed in Stanzas 8–9: Mu Dan awaits his future readers; despite his own mortality, his agonies consolidated on paper are forever “lying” here, like settled lava. Albeit distinct in tone and attitude, the message embedded in “Poetry” echoes those in “Harming”: “I will gush into my prejudice. / With my blood and terror, / there, I sculpt it into a god, / a god who forever lies low at the bottom of the sea, / a god who shines, reigns, avenges.” Thirty-five years later, the triumph of a poet matured into the triumph of poetry.
Mu Dan’s interlaced sentiments of resignation and persistence are evidenced in the final year of his life. Throughout 1976, from the end of the Cultural Revolution to his abrupt death, Mu Dan composed more than sixty poems. All these were composed on “yellowed,” “ruined paper” secretly—kept even from his wife and children. Not until they organized his possessions after his death did they discover a tiny index card on which Mu Dan wrote sixty titles. Twenty-three poems were found and published. Thirty-seven were lost. Common to these last poems by Mu Dan is a style that fuses unadorned imagery, lucid language, restrained passion, and a wide vision with a wisdom that springs from anguish yet transcends it.
Divided by “Yet” in the final stanza, “Song of Wisdom” exhibits two landscapes that “I,” the poet, perceived while journeying to the end of fantasy. The first is a wasteland, in which all types of joy wither, like autumn leaves. The loss of the three weighs most heavily on the poet’s heart: youthful loves, fervent friendship, and the magnetic ideal. The second landscape is a singular tree that never withers. In contrast to all the trees of joy that have lost their colors, “the tree of wisdom” absorbs “the sap of my anguish”—“my” only belonging that remains in this wasteland—to nourish its ardent greenness. It exploits “my” vulnerability yet fulfills “my” mission. “Yet” in the final stanza signals not only the contrast between the two landscapes, but also “my” opposing sentiments toward both. First, recognizing the autumn leaves as the joys that were “mine,” “I” remembers with gratitude their past radiance, vibrance, and promise, yet “I” resents what they have become. Second, recognizing the tree of wisdom as the sole being that flourishes in this wasteland, “I know” with pride “my” contribution to the miracle, yet “I curse” its thriving growth that feeds on “my” anguish. So, at the end of his journey, the poet is tortured by both the deciduous trees of life and the evergreen tree of wisdom.
Like “anguish,” “tree” has been a recurring image in Mu Dan’s poetry; often it was used as his self-portrait and occasionally as a symbol for transcendence. In “Spring,” the 25-year-old Mu Dan projected his generation’s anguish of anticipation onto a tree burning with the desire to burst into color and be born anew: “a tree of twenty-year-old flesh, burning . . . waiting to spring forth into a new palette.” In “My Uncle Died,” the 40-year-old Mu Dan projected his anguish of conversion onto a tree whose leaves and roots were pulled into opposite realms: “Equalization has converted me into a tree, / its branches slowly extend towards spring; / from dark secret roots, sap ascends, / upon bright sunlit leaves, it incessantly whirls.” In “The Jungle’s Allure” however, Mu Dan the jungle war survivor sang an elegy on the CEF martyrs and used the primeval trees to transform their dead bodies into eternal spirits: “no man knows that History once tread this path, / leaving behind the spirits of heroes—to become one with the trees and thrive.”
Here in “Song of Wisdom,” Mu Dan’s usage of tree imagery combines and elevates both threads. First, instead of a tree associated with a particular stage of life, a wood of autumn leaves incorporates all trees that illustrate life’s essential joys and reveals their common downfall through Time’s caprice, practicality’s decree, and History’s mistake. Second, instead of the primeval jungle that he endured in real life, Mu Dan resorts to fantasy and draws an abstract tree of wisdom to voice his aspiration for transcendence.
As a concept, “wisdom” used to be suspicious in Mu Dan’s poetry. An explicit instance occurred in “Nature’s Dream”: “almsgivers led me to the wisdom of the human world where I grew devout.” There, Mu Dan used wisdom as a sarcastic term for his cultural critique, targeting socio-political indoctrination and conspiracy as well as collective naivety and conformity. By contrast, the wisdom of the fantasy-generated tree distinguishes itself from the wisdom of the human world, as its ardent greenness distinguishes itself from the wasteland. Enlightening and eternal, the tree of wisdom echoes the sea and cosmos in “Nature’s Dream” and “the fountainhead of being” in “Revelation.” Thus, “Song of Wisdom” completes the two threads of Mu Dan’s tree imagery as human life and its antithesis—transcendental wisdom.
What makes “Song of Wisdom” representative of the Mu Dan of 1976 is his conception of “anguish” and “fantasy” as the bonds that unite humanity and transcendence. Regarding anguish: having survived all types of human joy and becoming “routine life’s punishment” itself, the poet’s anguish, retained in the soil of the wasteland, nourishes the singular tree of wisdom. Here, the 59-year-old Mu Dan revisits his 25-year-old self who composed “Departure” to sing of “fulfilling anguish.” Regarding fantasy: having journeyed to the end of fantasy, the aged poet, though “cast overboard from fantasy’s ship” like the young CEF martyrs portrayed in “Fantasy’s Passenger,” refuses to yield to death and “forever disembark at a mistaken port.” Rather, he has fantasy’s boat, as indicated in “Poetry,” refloated and brings to eternal life the tree of wisdom through his poem. While the verdict of “Poetry” is that “silence affords the highest testimony to anguish,” “Song of Wisdom” affirms that poetry—the poet’s voice—affords the highest testimony to wisdom.
The index card that preserves the sixty titles of Mu Dan’s last poems calls to mind the outline of his 1948 self-edited anthology. There, Mu Dan selected eighty poems that he composed between 1937 and 1948 to illuminate four stages of Chinese intellectual growth. Likewise, the index card that starts with “History” and ends with “I Am Wounded” provides insight into Mu Dan’s vision as a poet-citizen. Although the titles are not separated into groups, three threads can nevertheless be identified.
The first thread is Mu Dan’s reflection upon History—especially China’s cultural, ideological, and socio-political history. Representative titles include “History,” “Bird’s Eye View,” “This World,” “Skyscrapers,” “Fortress,” “Performances,” “A Short History of Phraseology,” “The Gilded Age,” “The Good Dream,” “The Grand Summer,” “Amid Frenzied Jubilation,” “An Undeclared War,” “Night of the Blackout,” “God’s Tower,” “Satan’s Shadow,” and “God’s Metamorphosis.”
The second thread is Mu Dan’s reflection upon humanity and transcendence. Representative titles include “Time Is Mute,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Ideal,” “Truth,” “Half-Truth, Half-Deceit,” “Forgiving,” “Sinking,” “Contemplation,” “Questioning,” “Song of Four Seasons,” “Fantasy’s Journey,” “Flight to the Moon,” “Poetry,” “The Sap of Anguish,” and “Song of Wisdom.”
The third thread is Mu Dan’s reflection upon himself, or, more precisely, his selves—past and present; public and private; official and essential; intellectual and emotional. Representative titles include “Self,” “Childhood,” “Becoming ‘Me,’” “An Ordinary Man,” “I Hear That I Am Old,” “An Old Man’s Dreamy Murmurs,” “The Defeated,” “Mourning,” “Insomnia,” “Here, All Is Well,” and “I Am Wounded.”30
The twenty-three poems that were found and published demonstrate not only the distinctions among the three threads, but also their overlap and blending. In “God’s Metamorphosis,” Mu Dan interweaves his reflection upon China’s history with his reflection upon humanity.
Like a quartet, the poem assigns each character a clear-cut voice: the omnipotent God who grows more and more insecure, the revolutionary Satan who craves nothing but the throne, the self-determined Man who continues oscillating between the two, and Power who dictates all from the shadows. Through their respective voices, the Mu Dan of 1976 revisits his life-long historical observations, intellectual diagnoses, and cultural critiques. Albeit titled “God’s Metamorphosis,” the poem relies on Satan, Man, and Power as much as God to demonstrate its message: the chain of command from Power—the master of the world—through God and Satan—who wield Man yet are themselves pawns of Power—to Man—the exploited subject of God, Satan, and Power. The inherent vulnerability of Man is manifest in the sequence of his speeches. Hardly has Man decided to end his role of bystander or involuntary participant and claimed to have seen a truth, when Man yields to Satan’s allure. Here, Mu Dan’s previous criticism of collective blindness (“May,” “Rift,” and “Violence”) is twisted, as the enlightened Man, who sees the world for what it is, is more manipulable than ever. At the same time, what Mu Dan called “the void on high” or “the invisible master” (“Upon Turning Thirty”) finally unmasks himself as Power. Thus, the poem exceeds its title and depicts simultaneously Satan’s metamorphosis, Man’s “fruit of anguish,” and Power’s corrosion of God, Satan, and Man.
As one of the three poetic dramas within Mu Dan’s oeuvre, “God’s Metamorphosis” builds a parallel to “The Jungle’s Allure” as well as “The Battle between God and Satan.” The former, as discussed in Sacrifice, features a duel between Jungle and Man followed by an elegy. By comparison, “God’s Metamorphosis” divides the character of Jungle into God and Satan, expands and intensifies the vulnerability of Man, and transforms the poet’s genuine requiem into Power’s sarcastic elegy. “The Battle between God and Satan,” on the other hand, features four characters: God, Satan, Forest Spirit, and East Wind. While God and Satan resemble their equivalents in “God’s Metamorphosis” and Forest Spirit bears similarities to Man, East Wind stands out as a counterpoint to Power. In “God’s Metamorphosis,” Mu Dan presents Power as History’s mistake. In “The Battle between God and Satan,” East Wind’s opening speech, revised by Mu Dan shortly before his death, reveals his reflection on how to correct History’s mistake: “Although mankind is destroying / the life it obtained from decay: / I am willing to stand in front of the adolescent landscape, / an old man watching his offspring stirring trouble, / calm and tranquil, I caress branches and leaves and smile.”32
If only one poem should be chosen from Mu Dan’s last writings as his ultimate history, it would be “Self.” Sharp yet perplexing, the poem voices Mu Dan’s reflection upon his varied selves throughout life—his life of a poet-citizen and the life of China. At the individual level, “Self” completes Mu Dan’s subversive questioning of Confucian wisdom in the form of a trilogy, interrupted by the forced silence in 1967. The 1947 “Upon Turning Thirty” questions “At thirty, I took my stand;” the 1957 “A Funeral Song” questions “At forty, I had no doubts;” and the 1976 “Self” questions “At sixty, my ear sought to hear the truth.” The contrast between “this language, this faith” and “another world” prompts the reader to speculate what they may allude to: the world of China vs. the world of the United States? The world of the past and present vs. the world of the future? Or the world of reality and pragmatism vs. the world of poetry and fantasy? At the national level, the history told in Stanzas 1–3 and the “unwritten life history” in Stanza 4 prompt the reader to ponder more than the history, alternative history, and probable future of the individual “self.” They urge the reader to contemplate the history, alternative history, and probable future of the national “self”—China.
Discussion of the Literature
The complexity of literature and history in modern China has prompted scholars to seek new avenues for understanding. In 2017, two publications achieved milestones in English and Chinese studies. A New Literary History of Modern China exhibits a modern Chinese literature that ranges from the late 18th century to the new millennium. Envisioned by David Der-Wei Wang, supported by an editorial board of eight pioneer scholars, and executed by 143 authors, this collective project inspires the reader with its unprecedented width and heterogeneity.34 By contrast, 20 Shiji Zhongguo Zhishifenzi Jingshenshi Sanbuqu is the result of one man’s quest. Qian Liqun, an uncompromising scholar known for his research on Lu Xun and Mao Zengdong, has finally realized his ambition to write a spiritual history of 20th-century Chinese intellectuals. Spanning 1948: Shifting Heavens, Quaking Earth, 1949–1976: Receding Oceans, Encroaching Lands, and 1977–2005: On Watch—The Last Stand, his trilogy integrates close reading and cultural hermeneutics to reconstruct the agonizing pilgrimage of Chinese intellectuals.35 Both publications challenge the reader to rethink the ways of reading literature, writing history, and examining their interaction.
Within this context, reading poetry as history suggests a new way to write modern China’s history—not just literary, but also spiritual, intellectual, military, and social-political. As demonstrated in the study of Mu Dan, this conceptual framework is effective for poetry that fuses linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision. Thus, it is applicable to other poets such as Lu Xun, Chang Yao, and Shi Zhi. Reading poetry as history allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. It uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of China.
Reading poetry as history recognizes poetry as a source for historical studies. In Mu Dan’s case, it includes his Chinese poetry, English poetry, and Chinese translation of English and Russian poetry.
Regarding Mu Dan’s Chinese poetry, the most complete collection is the two-volume Mu Dan’s Poetry and Prose (2014). In order to explore the interaction between history and poetry, this should also be used as a map to identify two more sources. The first is a series of newspapers and journals that provided diverse platforms for Mu Dan’s voice from 1940s through 1990s, such as Ta Kung Pao, Yishi Bao, Literature Magazine, Renaissance, China’s New Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and People’s Literature. They enable the reader to contextualize Mu Dan within the vast field of modern Chinese literature. The second is a series of Mu Dan’s anthologies followed by two incomplete projects: Expedition into Uncertainty (1945), Mu Dan’s Poetry (1947), Flag (1948), “Mu Dan’s Self-Edited Anthology” (1948), and “Mu Dan’s Last Poetry” (1976). They enable the reader to examine Mu Dan’s vision as a poet-citizen and cultural critic through the different stages of his life.
Regarding Mu Dan’s English poetry, twelve English poems that he composed between 1948 and 1951 have been collected in Mu Dan’s Poetry and Prose. Although each of them has a previously composed Chinese equivalent, they are not his self-translation, but his self-revision. A comparative reading of each pair, as shown in “Enlightenment,” reveals the intellectual growth of Mu Dan and his generation.
Regarding Mu Dan’s translation of English and Russian poetry, the most complete collection is the eight-volume Mu Dan’s Translation (2005). The Chinese voice crafted by Mu Dan, the silenced poet, for Pushkin, Byron, Blake, Shelley, Yeats, Eliot, and Auden illuminates not only the cross-cultural dialogue between China and the West, but also the interaction between translation and creative writing. Moreover, Mu Dan’s voice as a poet-translator enables the reader to explore the complex intellectual atmosphere of the PRC from 1953 through 1977.
I thank Steven Buchele, Bradley Frederick, David Pharris, Brennen VanderVeen, and Walker Womack for participating in intense discussions of Mu Dan’s poetry, which I conducted from May through November 2017. I thank Joli Jensen, Holly Laird, Peter Perdue, Haun Saussy, and Bruce Dean Willis for their constructive criticism. The year 2018 is the 100th anniversary of Mu Dan’s birth. The publication of this article is dedicated to Mu Dan’s centennial.
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(1.) Mu Dan, “Chun” (Spring), in Mu Dan Shiwenji (Mu Dan’s Poetry and Prose), ed. Li Fang (Beijing: Renmin Wenxue, 2014), 1:75.
(2.) Mu Dan, “Wuyue” (May), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 35–37. In my translation, I adjust character width and margins to reproduce the visual effect (square) of classical style stanzas.
(3.) Mu Dan, “Shanghai” (Harming), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 226–227.
(4.) Mu Dan, “Chufa” (Departure), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 80–81.
(5.) Mu Dan, “Ziran de Meng” (Nature’s Dream), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 82.
(6.) Mu Dan, “Huanxiang de Chengke” (Fantasy’s Passenger), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 83–84.
(7.) Mu Dan, “Liewen” (Rift), in Mu Dan: Qi (Flag), ed. Ba Jin (Shanghai: Wenhua Shenghuo, 1948), 30–32.
(8.) Mu Dan, “Sanshi Danchen Yougan” (Upon Turning Thirty), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 251–252.
(9.) Mu Dan, “Senlin zhi Mei” (The Jungle’s Allure), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 137–140.
(10.) Mu Dan, “Xisheng” (Martyrdom), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 263–264.
(11.) Mu Dan, “Baoli” (Violence), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 259–260.
(12.) Zhu Guangqian, “Xiandai Zhongguo Wenxue” (Modern Chinese Literature), Wenxue Zazhi (Literature Magazine) 2, no. 8 (1948): 13–17; Mu Dan, “Hungry China, ” Wenxue Zazhi (Literature Magazine) 2, no. 8 (1948): 24–30.
(13.) Zhang Yu, “Ping Zhongguo Xinshi” (On China’s New Poetry), Xin Shichao (New Trends in Poetry) 3 (1948): 16–19; Shu Bo, “Ping Zhongguo Xinshi” (On China’s New Poetry), Xin Shichao (New Trends in Poetry) 4 (1948): 6–11; Jin Jun, “Tiqu Zhexie Banjiaoshi” (Kick Away These Stumbling Blocks), Xin Shichao (New Trends in Poetry) 4 (1948): 14–18.
(14.) “Mu Dan Zixuan Shiji Cunmu” (Mu Dan’s Self-Edited Anthology: An Outline), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 402–405.
(15.) Mu Dan, “Revelation,” in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 375–383.
(16.) Mu Dan, “Yinxian” (Revelation), in Wenxue Zazhi 2, no. 12 (1948): 76–82.
(17.) Wu Ningkun, A Single Tear—A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1993), 5.
(18.) Mu Dan, “Flag,” in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 388–389.
(19.) Mu Dan, “Qi” (Flag), in Mu Dan: Qi (Flag), 48–50.
(20.) Mu Dan, “Zangge” (A Funeral Song), in Shi Kan (Poetry Magazine) 5 (1957): 43–47.
(21.) Mu Dan, “Wo de Shufu Si le” (My Uncle Died), in Renmin Wenxue (People’s Literature) 7 (1957): 78. The last two poems of the seven are “Meiguo Zenyang Jiaoyu Xiayidai” (How the United States Educates Its Next Generation) and “Gan’enjie—Kechi de Zhai” (Thanksgiving—Shameful Debts), which Mu Dan composed in 1951 in the United States, exposing what he perceived at that time to be a false democracy. When publishing the two poems in 1957, Mu Dan dated them “1951” to emphasize their cultural-historical context.
(22.) Li Baifeng, “Xiegei Shirenmen de Gongkaixin” (An Open Letter to Poets), Renmin Wenxue 7 (1957): 68–70.
(23.) Li Zhi, “Fandui Shige Chuangzuo de Buliang Qingxiang ji Fandang Niliu” (Against the Evil Trends and Anti-Party Currents in the Creation of Poetry), Shi Kan 9 (1957): 100–110; Li Shu’er, “Mu Dan de ‘Zangge’ Daodi Maizang le Shenme?” (What On Earth Did Mu Dan’s ‘A Funeral Song’ Bury?), Shi Kan 8 (1958): 96–98; An Qi, “Guanyu Shi de Hanxu” (On the Obscurity of Poetry), Shi Kan 12 (1957): 97–105; Quan Lin, “Menwai Tanshi” (On Poetry), Shi Kan 4 (1958): 3–12; and “Zhanshi Tanshi” (Soldiers on Poetry), Shi Kan 7 (1958): 47–63.
(24.) Zhou Yuliang, “Yongheng de Sinian” (Forever Reminiscing), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 1–13.
(25.) Mu Dan, “‘Wo’ de Xingcheng” (Becoming ‘Me’), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 345–346.
(26.) Mu Dan, “Haomeng” (The Good Dream), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 343–344.
(27.) Li Fang, “Mu Dan Nianpu” (A Chronicle of Mu Dan’s Life), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 2: 402.
(28.) Mu Dan, “Shi” (Poetry), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 318–319.
(29.) Mu Dan, “Zhihui zhi Ge” (Song of Wisdom), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1:310–311.
(30.) “Mu Dan Wanqi Shizuo Yimu” (Mu Dan’s Last Poetry: Titles), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 406. In range and depth, Mu Dan’s last poems differ from both the post-cultural revolution poems by Ai Qing, Du Yunxie, and Cai Qijiao and from the influential memoirs by Ba Jin, Yang Jiang, and Ji Xianlin.
(31.) Mu Dan, “Shen de Bianxing” (God’s Metamorphosis), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 353–356.
(32.) Mu Dan, “Shen Mo zhi Zheng” (The Battle Between God and Satan), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 141–153.
(33.) Mu Dan, “Ziji” (Self), in Mu Dan Shiwenji, 1: 334–335.
(34.) David Der-Wei Wang, ed., A New Literary History of Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
(35.) Qian Liqun, 20 Shiji Zhongguo Zhishifenzi Jingshenshi Sanbuqu (The Spiritual History of 20th-Century Chinese Intellectuals: A Trilogy) (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 2017).